Ann Killion
Tuesday November 17th, 2009

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh warned Monday against the "ills of hubris"

Which was pretty amusing, considering he spent his weekend as the poster child for hubris (noun, Greek origin, definition: excessive self confidence, arrogance).

Harbaugh's Stanford team has transformed from the wimpy Clark Kent of a few years ago to Superman -- beating Oregon one week and vivisecting USC the next. Harbaugh exhibited excessive self confidence on Saturday when -- already up by 27 points -- he called a two-point conversion, intent on laying 50 on the Trojans.

That call irritated Pete Carroll, the Zeus of West Coast football. After the 55-21 destruction, the most points surrendered in USC history, Carroll greeted Harbaugh at the midfield handshake with the testy question: "What's your deal?"

Harbaugh, unbowed, replied, "What's your deal?"

In answer to Carroll's question, here's Harbaugh's deal: He's suddenly the hottest coach in football -- and not just the college game. He's a brash, smart, former NFL quarterback who has taken a forlorn, unworkable program and turned it into a Rose Bowl contender.

And while his failed two-point conversion may have breached the rules of etiquette, it made a statement about how Harbaugh wants to play football.

Fabulous redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who has gotten better by the week, has fueled Stanford's rise. Workhorse tailback Toby Gerhart, who has inserted himself in the Heisman conversation, has carried the Cardinal. Gerhart now ranks third nationally in rushing, with a 139.5 average per game. Stanford's offense ranks first in the Pac-10 and 14th nationally.

It's a far cry from the days of Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris, when Stanford football was a sad and timid program, content to be viewed as the group of smart kids at the bottom of the Pac-10 standings.

"We used to be the laughing stock of Stanford sports," Gerhart said. "Now we have people believing in Stanford football."

Harbaugh has instilled a special swagger in his team, the kind rarely seen on the Stanford campus. It's the kind associated with a small fraternity -- men who stood behind center in the NFL.

It's as though Harbaugh infused his band of smart college kids with his own supreme self confidence.

Which is why it's interesting that, at the start of rivalry week, as Stanford prepares to take on Cal, Harbaugh used the term hubris so often. He seemed almost obsessed with the idea of too much self-confidence, as though he realizes his own world view could permeate his young, talented team.

"We're a blue collar football team and it's important that we get back to that identity," Harbaugh said. "Maybe, for a day there, we were a white collar team. But hubris can be a killer. The ills of hubris will sneak up on you and you don't even know it's sneaking up on you."

Harbaugh has never seemed too concerned about challenging the gods of his sport. Within months of getting the Stanford job he announced he expected Carroll to leave USC after one more season. He rubbed his alma mater, Michigan, the wrong way by knocking its academics. This summer, he upset some people at Stanford by getting a $50,000 marble bathroom installed in his office while Stanford was undergoing severe budget cuts.

That's the kind of hubris you expect to see in the SEC.

Stanford's recent financial problems are the reason Harbaugh's contract extension has yet to be signed, even though an agreement for a three-year extension has been in place for almost a year.

"I believe we'll have an announcement about that in the not-so-distant future," Harbaugh said Monday.

Athletic director Bob Bowlsby might want to take care of that announcement now. Stanford's biggest donor, John Arrillaga, will surely try to make it happen; Arrillaga built Stanford Stadium and funded that marble bathroom.

But Harbaugh is at the top of many short lists. His name is cropping up in the speculation surrounding Notre Dame (who Stanford will play in the season finale on Nov. 28) and other college programs will surely be interested. Clearly Harbaugh, the son of a college coach, can recruit, inspire and get his players to execute.

But he also played 13 seasons in the NFL, where his brother, John, is currently succeeding as a head coach with the Baltimore Ravens. He was linked to the New York Jets job a year ago. When the NFL wheel rotates after the season, Harbaugh's name will surely come into play.

It's a heady time for Harbaugh and Stanford. The Cardinal is the only team since 2001 to beat USC at the Coliseum, doing it twice. Now, if the Cardinal wins its final two games, and if a few other games turn out in its favor, Stanford could make it to the Rose Bowl.

Pride goes before the fall. Or the next big job contract.

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